Q: I am currently preparing for my first BJJ tournament. However I had wrestled for
6 years so I do not fear the adrenaline of nervousness. What I am worried
about is developing what everyone calls a ‘gameplan’ for matches. What
things are there to consider in preparation (5 weeks out)? Should I focus
on tightening my weaknesses or capitalizing things I already have a firm
grasp on? Thanks lot in advance for your time~!!

A: Wrestlers switching to BJJ come with a lot valuable skills and traits built in. The trick is learning how to adapt these talents to the rules and realities of submission grappling. Without seeing you train, I’ll give you general advice that I’d give to any wrestler.

First off, don’t be a jerk by entering the beginners/novice division. Unless you face other sandbagging wrestlers and white belts on the verge of blue belt, you will be smashing soft beginners and casual grapplers. Some tournaments explicitly state that wrestling experience counts when determining which division to enter. Your coach can advise you on the right division to compete in.

With six years of wrestling under your singlet, we’ll assume you’re better at takedowns and scrambles than most of your opponents. That steers you toward a gameplan like this:

  1. Get the takedown
  2. Pass guard or stay out of it entirely
  3. Stay on top and get dominant positions
  4. Control them with driving pressure
  5. Only go for simple submissions

That’s nothing revolutionary. Straightforward gameplans win more matches than fancy ones. A plan like this highlights your strengths without requiring too many BJJ skills you have yet to refine. It’s still up to you to flesh it out by answering these questions:

  1. Which takedowns?
  2. Which guard passes?
  3. Which side control grips?
  4. Do I try to get mount or rear mount?
  5. Which submissions?
  6. What if I end up on bottom?

Your answers will come from your experience, regular training, and coaching from your instructor. Stay on the simple side, and don’t get overambitious unless you really are confident in your skills.

You’ll need a plan to deal with guard pullers. Ask your coach about that, and he’ll have a few ideas. See if you can learn how to score two points for a “takedown” when they were really just sloppy about pulling guard. At the least, you’ll need to have a good way to pass guard, especially closed guard. That’s a situation that never existed in wrestling, and wrestlers are often frustrated by it.

Depending on how new you are to BJJ, you may be struggling with wrestling habits that get you in trouble. The first lessons we learn stick the hardest, and nothing sticks quite as stubbornly as wrestling habits. Here are the common wrestling mistakes to avoid:

  • Don’t get caught in guillotines when shooting for takedowns.
  • Don’t dive into triangles or armbars or go crazy with your arms while passing guard.
  • Don’t give up your back if you have to escape from bottom.
  • Don’t stick your neck out to be choked as you’re escaping bottom.

Wrestlers often have these bad habits when they start BJJ. You’ve likely experienced some or all of those problems in your training so far, and hopefully you’ve been correcting them. The determination to push and drive and hustle that wrestling instills can backfire in BJJ. You’ll have to train out the bad habits through trial and error.

Here’s how I’d speed that process up. If you have an open mat and willing training partners, see if you can do positional sparring where you work through each of these positions:

  • Rear mount
  • Mount
  • Side control
  • Turtle
  • Half guard
  • Closed guard

To run these drills, set a timer for 2-3 minute rounds. One of you starts on top, the other on bottom. Whoever is on top tries to advance to better positions and get submissions. The person on bottom defends and tries to escape. Reset to the starting position whenever someone taps or escapes. Switch top and bottom when the timer rings. You can stick with the same partner all the way through or switch partners a few times on each position.

Besides being a good test of cardio, training like this makes you cover both sides of every major position. You’re also less likely to get accidentally injured when you restrict the positions.

If during these drills you’re struck with a realization like “Hey, I don’t really know how to escape rear mount, I just spin really hard and hope they fall off,” you have something to ask your instructor about. By doing both sides of each major position, you’ll quickly figure out where your strengths and weaknesses are.

At five weeks out, you still have time to learn a few simple moves, but you shouldn’t try to pick up anything totally different than what you already do. Tweaks and tips will mean more to you now that totally new techniques.

One last bit of advice. Read the tournament rules and make sure you understand them. I’ve seen wrestlers throw matches or get needlessly upset with refs by not really understanding the points and penalties. Ask your coach to clarify anything you don’t understand, and don’t miss the rules meeting at the tournament.